Siegel: Franson carving out productive role for Leafs

Jonas Siegel

3/2/2013 9:06:45 PM

TORONTO – Cody Franson returned to North America from a lockout stint in Sweden armed with a new contract and mindset for his second season in Toronto.

"Taking the positive approach to things and controlling what you can control is the productive way to do things," he said in conversation with on Saturday afternoon. "Focusing on the right things. It's gone well so far."

While his first season as a Leaf was a frustrating calamity, gradually this winter the 25-year-old has carved out a productive role for himself under Randy Carlyle, leading all Toronto defenders with 12 assists and 13 points, good for fourth (tied) and fifth (tied) among all NHL blueliners this season. In February, Franson was up to 17-plus minutes nightly, totaling 10 points – all assists – in 15 games.

"I was playing not to make a mistake last year," he said of the 2011-12 campaign, which saw him dress in just 57 games, a healthy scratch many nights, posting 21 points. "I'm trying to be a little bit more aggressive and loose I guess you could say, just feeling the rhythm of the game and rolling with the punches a bit more rather than trying to worry about not making that mistake to get out of the lineup the next night. That's changed the way I've played the game a bit this year and I feel like I'm playing better hockey because of it."

Teamed with Mark Fraser for the past 17 games on what's become a reliable third pairing, Franson has also found a role on the Leafs primary power-play unit, manning the right point alongside Dion Phaneuf since early February.

The B.C. native is perhaps best suited to playing alongside a defence-first partner like Fraser. An offensive-minded defender himself – with a first pass that rivals any on the team, noted in his 10 even-strength helpers – Franson spent last season teamed with the likes of Jake Gardiner and John-Michael Liles, similarly inclined defencemen with whom he was mostly indecisive. With Fraser he can comfortably read and react to the offensive instincts of his game, becoming more assertive and impactful as a result. "The number one thing," said Carlyle of the 6'5", 200-plus pound Franson, "is he's been much more aggressive and involved in the games. If you look at his physical size, he's used that more to his advantage. And he's found a niche to play on the power-play. Those are all confidence boosters for any player to get ice-time. You've got to find minutes for him and he's earned the minutes."

A restricted free agent last summer, Franson came to terms with the Leafs – a one-year deal worth $1.2 million – in the hours after the lockout was finally solved, joining training camp shortly after it began. Like a year ago, he bounced in and out of the lineup again early, but remained true to his newfound approach of optimism, not stewing over decisions and external factors out of his control, a mindset which stemmed from a memorable summer conversation with his father. "He said 'You can't be so frustrated all the time," Franson recalled of the advice last month. "All it does is build up stress, you never relax, you never have fun if you're always thinking about what's not going your way'. It made a lot of sense."

On January 29 at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, Franson posted a goal and an assist in 13 minutes of ice. He has not come out of the lineup since. "It's an old cliché but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," said Franson, set to become a restricted free agent again this summer, his value certainly on the rise. "And last year I was struggling. It's one of those things where you sit back and reflect on it once everything is done and you try to move forward and learn from your mistakes.

"I'm playing to stay in the lineup still ... We've got lots of guys that are very capable of coming into the lineup and I know that. You can't take anything for granted."